It’s been a good few years for the breaking of droughts in AFL football. Last year’s premier had waited 37 years for another flag, and in 2016, we saw a 62-year dry spell ended.
By comparison, Melbourne’s booking of a spot in this year’s finals series is small beans. But in a modern context of equalisation and a finals system which takes in nearly half the competition, the Demons’ ending of a 12-year exile from September action is significant nonetheless.
There are few, if any tougher road trips in football right now than a journey to Perth to take on West Coast, particularly with a finals chance on the line.
In fact, before last season, Melbourne had lost 17 games in a row in Perth against both the Eagles and their crosstown rival Fremantle.
But now the Demons have won a couple in a row, and with Sunday’s 17-point triumph, have potentially something more lucrative then a mere token finals appearance in store as a result.
While Melbourne could lose next Sunday’s MCG clash with Greater Western Sydney and still be assured of staying in the eight, should Fremantle (as unlikely as it seems) upset Collingwood in Perth the night before, the Demons will go into the game with a double chance on the line, leap-frogging the Giants, Magpies and the loser of Saturday night’s big Sydney-Hawthorn clash if they win.
That’s just one of many possibilities, of course, Geelong the only team in the top eight without any prospect of a top four finish, but still needing only to defeat Gold Coast at home to at least get a September guernsey, given its massive percentage gap on Port Adelaide.
It’s been a miserable finish to the season for the Power, which sat fourth after round 16 but has since lost five of six games, including two it led by the best part of two goals with only a couple of minutes to play.
To rub more salt into the wound, should they beat Essendon on Friday night (and Geelong wins) they will become the first side to miss the eight having won 13 games.
West Coast now must defeat Brisbane at the Gabba to make sure it earns a top-two finish and chance for two home finals. Sydney and Hawthorn, meanwhile, clash at the SCG on Saturday in what is effectively a pre-finals final, the winner savouring a double chance, the loser sentenced to doing September the hard way.
Melbourne, however, remains potentially the joker in the finals pack. While much had been made in the lead-up to Sunday’s game of the Demons’ 0-7 record this season against top nine teams, three of those defeats were by nine points or less. They did also beat North Melbourne and Adelaide earlier in the season when both those sides were in the eight.
Any doubts about Melbourne’s credentials, though, have had arguably as much to with their capacity to beat themselves as any specific opponents via the struggle for balance between their offensive and defensive selves.
Easily the highest-scoring team in the competition, Melbourne averages 104.6 points per game, the only side going at over 100, the Demons’ 16.12 (108) against West Coast the 13th time this season they’ve topped the ton. They’re handy at the hard ball get, too, leading the differential rankings for contested possession
Yet they’ve also been a little too “one-way”. While Melbourne doesn’t allow opponents that many forward 50 entries, it has routinely leaked scores from what entries there were, at a higher rate than all bar three of the bottom six teams in the competition.
Against the Eagles, though, the Demons got the balance spot on. They won the contested possession and clearance counts handsomely, and beat West Coast on the outside to boot.
And while the loss of spearhead Jesse Hogan for the rest of the season is obviously an inconvenience Melbourne would rather not deal with, Sunday’s win underlined that his absence needn’t be a fatal blow, the Demons’ array of goalkicking options serving them well, Jake Melksham, Tom McDonald and Mitch Hannan combining for 10, Melbourne with nine individual goalkickers.
There is something irresistible about the way Melbourne plays when it is firing, a potency that perhaps just might provide some think music for the likes even of Richmond, which has the minor premiership stitched up already after its 20thstraight win on the MCG last Friday night.
Sneak into fourth spot, and at least the Demons, like the Tigers, would be playing on home turf. But even should Melbourne remain in the bottom half of the eight, it could either by right or default end up with a home final, potentially against GWS, having had a round 23 sighter, or against Geelong, to whom it has lost twice, yet only right on and indeed after the final siren.
That win over West Coast was obviously critical in practical terms for the Demons. But having now both ended their finals absence and broken through against quality opposition, who is to say it won’t prove equally as pivotal psychologically, Melbourne not just a finalist again, but suddenly a serious September player.